December 27, 2008

Alexander Vvedensky

Alexander Vvedensky [Russia/USSR]

Born in St. Petersburg in 1904, Alexander Vvedensky grew with a mother who was a gynecologist and a father who was an economist. From 1917 to 1921 he attended high school, meeting Leonid Lipavsky and Iakov Drusky, who would become the major philosophers in his circle. From his teacher, L. V. Georg, the young boy learned of the latest developments in Russian poetry, including Futurism and other experimental poetries. He started at the university after high school, but soon dropped out.

His major poetic education took place at GNKhUK, the State Institute of Artistic Culture, headed by Kazimir Malevich, with researches into zaum (sound) poetry by Igor Terentiev, for whom Vvedensky worked. In 1925 he and his high school friend, Iakov Druskin, became friends with the aspiring poet Danill Kharms, who was a student of the Futurist sound poet Alexander Tufanov, himself experimenting with theories of zaum thorough narrative time. For the next year and a half, Vvedensky, Nikolai Zabolotsky and Kharms sought to establish an organization that would unite all avant-garde and left-wing artist of Leningrad. The first of their radical projects, the theater company Radix, “experimenting in the area of non-emotional and plotless art and aiming to create a pure theater not subject to literature,” fell apart while rehearsing the Kharms and Vvedensky montage My Momma’s Got Clocks All Over. They also made attempts to join forces with Malevich, but after political denunciations in the press forced the closure of GINKhUK, Malevich left for Warsaw. In late 1927, they were offered a base at the Leningrad Press Club on the condition that they assume a new name, since the word “left-wing” sounded to authorities to be to close to Trotsky’s views. Thus was born OBERIU, a neologism standing for the Union of Real Art.

The same year, children’s writer and editor Nikolai Oleinikov invited OBERIU members to write for the State Publishing House for Children (DETGIZ). Vvendensky would later confess that he was attracted to children’s literature because it was non-political, allowing him to experiment with nonsense. Neither he nor Kharms achieved greatness as writers for children, but it allowed them to work on their more serious writing.

OBERIU was unable to publish most of their writings, but the organization to provide raucous performances in Leningrad clubs and educational institutions. Transpiring under nonsensical slogans hung for the occasion, the performances united poetry, theater, film, magic tricks, juggling, and general clowning around; they culminated in debates that often turned into shouting matches. The State’s tightening control over the arts, threatened these performances, however, and audiences grew increasingly hostile to their work. After an April 30th reading at Leningrad State University, OBERIU was forced to dissolve because of newspaper accusations of counterrevolutionary activity. The press also voiced accusations against their children’s writing. Vvedensky and Kharms were detained in December of 1931 along with other members of OBERIU. Vvedensky, suffering hard imprisonment, cracked under interrogation, naming others and admitting his guilt. He was sentenced to three years of internal exile, forced to remain away from major population centers. By 1933, however, both his term and Kharms’s was reduced, and they returned to Leningrad, allowed to write children’s books but not to compose poetry. The avant-garde movement was over, and they wrote privately only for their friends.

In 1936, Vvedensky met the woman who would become his third wife, and he moved with her to Kharkov, where he spent much of the day gambling and writing frenetically at night. In 1937, his wife gave birth to a son. A month later, Nikolai Oleinikov was shot, charged with being a Trotsyite, and Nikolai Zabolotsky was seized on a terrorism charge. Soon after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Vvedensky himself was arrested and shipped via a prison train from Kharkov. He died of dystentery while being transported. Kharms, arrested a month earlier, died in a prison asylum in February 2nd the following year.

Most of Vvedensky’s work has been lost—both his poems and his novel, Murderers, You Morons. Of the pieces that survived, the majority were saved by Iakov Druskin, who was also responsible for saving much of Kharm’s writings. In 1980, Druskin’s student, Mikhail Meilakh, published Vvedensky’s collected writings in the United States in the Russian-language publishing house Ardis. Vvedensky’s work was published in his homeland during perestroika.


Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1980); Polnoe sobranie proizvedenii: v dvukh tomakh (Moscow: Gileia, 1993).

in Russia’s Lost Literature of the Absurd: A Literary-Discovery. Selected Works of Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, edited and trans. by George Gibian (New York: Norton, 1974); An Invitation for Me to Think: Poems (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2009).

Snow Lies

snow lies
earth flies
lights flip
in pigments night has come
on a rug of stars it lies
is it night or a demon?
like an inane lever
sleeps the insane river
it is now aware
of the moon everywhere
animals gnash their canines
in black gold cages
animals bang their heads
animals are the ospreys of saints
the world flies around the universe
in the vicinity of stars
dashes deathless like a swallow
seeks a home a nest
there’s no nest a hole
the universe is alone
maybe rarely in flight
time will pass as poor as night
or a daughter in a bed
will grow sleeping and then dead
then a crowd of relations
will rush in and cry alas
in steel houses
will howl loudly
she’s gone and buried
hopped to paradise big-bellied
God God have pity
good God on the precipice
but God said Go play
and she entered paradise
there spun any which way
numbers houses and seas
the inessential exists
in vain, they perceived
there God languished behind bars
with no eyes no legs no arms
so that maiden in tears
sees all this in the heavens
sees various eagles
appear out of night
and fly inane
and flash insane
this is so depressing
the dead maiden will say
serenely surprised
God will say
what’s depressing what’s
depressing, God, life
what are you talking about
what O noon do you know
you press pleasure and Paris
to your breast like two pears
you swell like music
you’re swell like a statue
then the wood howled
in final despair
it spies through the tares
a meandering ribbon
little ribbon a crate
curvy Lena of fate
Mercury was in the air
spinning like a top
and the bear
sunned his coat
people also walked around
bearing fish on a platter
bearing on their hands
ten fingers on a ladder
while all this went on
that maiden rested
rose from the dead and forgot
yawned and said
you guys, I had a dream
what can it mean
dreams are worse than macaroni
they make crows double over
I was not at all dying
I was gaping and lying
undulating and crying
I was so terrifying
a fit of lethargy
was had by me among the effigies
let’s enjoy ourselves really
let’s gallop to the cinema
and sped off like an ass
to satisfy her innermost
lights glint in the heaven
is it night or a demon

January 1930

Translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky

The Meaning of the Sea

to make everything clear
live backwards
take walks in the woods
tearing hair
when you recognize fire
in a lamp a stove
say wherefore you yearn
fire ruler of the candle
what do you mean or not
where’s the cabinet the pot
demons spiral like flies
over a piece of cake
these spirits displayed
legs arms and horns
juicy breasts war
lamps contort in sleep
babes in silence blow the trumpet
women cry on a pine-tree
the universal God stands
in the cemetery of the skies
the ideal horse walks
finally the forest comes
we look on in fear
we think it’s fog
the forest growls and waves its arms
it feels discomfort boredom
it weakly whispers I’m a phantom
maybe later I’ll be
fields stand near a hillock
holding fear on a platter
people montenegrins beasts
joyfully feast
impetuous the music plays
finns have fun
shepherds shepherdesses bark
barks are rowed across tables
here and there in the barks
mark the minutes’ haloes
we are in the presence of fun
I said this right away
either the birth of a canyon
or the nuptials of cliffs
we will witness this feast
from this bench this trumpet
as the tambourines clatter
and flutters, spinning like the earth
skies will come and a battle
or we will come to be ourselves
goblets moved among mustaches
in the goblets flowers rose
and our thoughts were soaring
among curled plants
our thoughts were soaring
among curled plants
our gods our aunts
our souls our breath
our goblets in them death
but we said, and yet
this rain is meaningless
we beg, pass the sign
the sign plays on water
the wise hills throw
into the stream all those who feasted
glasses flourish in the water
water homeland of the skies
after thinking we like corpses
showed to heaven our arses
sea time sleep are one
we will mutter sinking down
we packed our instruments
souls powders feet
stationed our monuments
lighted our pots
on the floor of the deep
we the host of drowned men
in debate with the number fifteen
will shadow-box and burn up
and yet years passed
fog passed and nonsense
some of us sank on the floor
like the board of a ship
another languishes
gnashes his wisdom teeth
another on dull seaweed
hung the laundry of his muscle
and blinks like the moon
when the wave swings
another said my foot
is the same as the floor
in sum all are discontented
left the water in a huff
the waves hummed in back
starting to work
ships hopped around
horses galloped in the fields
shots were evident and tears
sleep and death in the clouds
all the drowned men came out
scratched themselves before the sunset
and rode off on a carriage beam
some were rich some not
I said I see right away
the end will come anyway
a big vase is brought this way
with a flower and a cymbal
here’s a vase that’s clever
here’s a candle snow
salt and mousetrap
for fun and pleasure
hello universal god
here I stand a bit sullied
glory be to heavens washed away
my oar memory and will


—Translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky

An Invitation for Me To Think

Let us think on a clear day
sitting down on stump and stone.
Us around flowers grew,
stars, people, homes.
From the mountains tall and steep,
water fell at breakneck speed.
We were sitting at the moment,
we kept our eyes on them.
Us around the day shines bright,
underneath us stump and stone.
Us around the birds fluttered,
the blue maidens puttered.
But where oh where us all around
is thunder’s now absent sound.
We perceive the river partially,
we’ll tell the stone contrarily:
Night, where are you in your absence
at this hour, on this day?
Art, what is it that you feel or sense,
being there without us?
Government, where do you stay?
Foxes and bugs are in the woods,
concepts in the sky above—
Come closer God and ask the fox:
so, fox, is it far from dawn to dusk?
will the stream run a long distance
from the word understood to the word flower?
The fox will reply to God:
it’s all a disappearing road.
You or he or I, we’ve gone but a hair,
we hadn’t even time to see that minute,
and look God, fish and sky, that part has vanished
forever, it would seem, from our planet.
We said: yes, it’s apparent,
we can’t see the hour ago.
We thought—we’re
very lonely.
In a moment our
eye covers a little only.
And our hearing, down and out,
senses only one sound.
And our soul
knows but a sad snippet of science’s whole.
We said: yes, it’s obvious,
it’s all very upsetting to us.
And that’s when we flew.
And I flew like a cuckoo
imagining my lightness.
A passerby thought: He’s coo-coo,
he’s made in a screech-owl’s likeness.
Passerby, forget your stupid gloom,
look, all around putter maidens blue,
like angels, dogs run smartly round,
why is it all boring and dark for you.
We’re tickled by what is unknown,
the inexplicable’s our friend,
we see the forest walking backward,
yesterday stands all around today.
The star changes in volume,
the world grows old, the moose grows old.
We once happened to be
in the saltwater body of the seas,
where the waves let out a squeak,
we monitored the proud fish:
the fish floated like oil
on the surface of the water,
we understood, life was burning out everywhere
from the fish to God and the star.
And the feeling of calm
caressed everybody with its arm.
But noticing music’s body
you did not burst into tears.
The passerby addresses us:
Hasn’t grief taken hold of you completely?
Yes, music’s magic beacon
burned out, evoking pity.
The ruling night was just beginning,
we cried a century.


Translated from the Russian by Matvei Yankelevich


“Snow Lies,” “The Meaning of the Sea,” and “An Invitation for Me to Think”
forthcoming from An Invitation for Me to Think, trans. by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2009). English language translation ©2005 by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

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